Was Jesus born to die? Is Christmas really about the cross?

Posted: December 22, 2010 by limabean03 in Anglican Communion, Christian Theology, Christianity, Thought and Practice in the Diocese of South Carolina
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I recently read a post from a pastor who I respect enormously.  Unfortunately, I found myself disagreeing with him!  Much like Calvin used to do when he disagreed with Luther, I will decline to name this pastor.  Rather than draw attention to the man, I will draw attention to his words for on this point they fall short of the mark.

He writes:

During this time of year, it may be easy to forget that the bigger purpose behind Bethlehem was Calvary. But the purpose of the manger was realized in the horrors of the cross. The purpose of his birth was his death.

I must admit that I am sympathetic with this statement.  I’ve attended too many Christmas Eve worship services where the pastor made warm fuzzies of the babe born in the manger while neglecting the larger purpose of redemption.  Make no mistake about it, Jesus is born in the shadow of the cross.  He is a child whose fate is sealed.  He is a babe of destiny.

And if I were being honest, I would say that it is the crucifixion and not the incarnation which is the focal point of New Testament thought.  The cross is the thing that the New Testament authors continually return to.  Even John’s Gospel, which is the Gospel with the most mature articulation of the incarnation,  makes clear that the reason Jesus came was to suffer and die on the cross (John 12.27).

And while the cross must be given its due honor so must the manger.  The miracle in Bethlehem is not simply a stepping stone to Golgotha.  I am much more comfortable saying that Bethlehem and Golgotha are two sides of the same coin.  Each in its own special way reveals the glory of God.  Let us follow the argument of the Apostle Paul:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7 ESV)

In this passage, the Holy Spirit through Paul gives us a backstage pass to the person of Christ.  In this passage we get to know his mind, how he thinks.  Now to fully illustrate this it would be worth reflecting on our mind.  Most of the people who will read this post today are what we might call small fish in a big pond.  But this is not how most of us consider ourselves.  Most of us consider ourselves to be big fish and we feel entitled to all the benefits that big fish are entitled to.  But this is not the mind of Christ.  He is a big fish.  He was in the form of God.  But he doesn’t have the mind of a big fish.  He has the mind of a small fish.  He “made himself nothing.”  He takes on the form of a servant.  Even though he’s God, he becomes a human.

Now I know a few college grads who have been looking for work for years.  They could get a job in the service industry but they won’t.  “I’m a college grad,” they say which is just another way of saying “I’m too good for that kind of work.”  All of us on some level have this operating in our hearts.  “I’m too good for that.”  Imagine a Doctor who willingly leaves his practice to become a garbage man.  Imagine this and you will not have even begun to plumb the depths of Bethlehem.  Imagine a King who willingly becomes a worm and you might be getting closer.  God willingly made himself nothing and became a man.

Paul does not view God making himself a man as merely a stepping stone to the cross.  Rather he sees this as part of larger project to reveal the mind of Christ.  Paul goes on to say:

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8 ESV)

Now what is Paul drawing attention to here?  The cross?  Not so fast.  Rather it is the humbling and condescension of Christ that Paul is drawing attention to here.  Christ humbled himself by becoming obedient to death.  Mark the astounding nature of this.  God became a man.  More than that he became a man who would die.  More than that!  He became a man who would die on a device designed to shame and torture those who hung upon it!  All this to say, mark the humility of the Son of God!

Paul concludes this section of Philippians by saying:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11 ESV)

Now why has God highly exalted him?  It is tempting to say “because of the cross!”  But this would be to miss the thrust of this passage.  The exaltation of Christ is not a Medal of Honor.  By this I mean, the exaltation of Christ is not a reward for one brave action.  Rather the exaltation of Christ is more like a lifetime (an eternity!)  achievement award.  God exalts Christ because of his character, his mind and how his mind is made manifest throughout eternity.  And what is his mind?  His mind is that even though he is the creator, if necessary he would take on the form of a created thing.  Even though he had a home in heaven, he would be born in a stable.  Even though he is Lord of all, he would become a servant.  Even though he is immortal, he would submit himself to death.  And even though he is sinless, he would die for sinner’s sake.  That is who he is.  That is the character of the God we worship.

Bethlehem does not acquire our redemption.  But make no mistake about it, the same character that moved the Son of God to be born in a stable is the same character that moved him to die on the cross.  Understood this way, both Bethlehem and Golgotha are stepping stones.  But stepping stones to what?  Stepping stones to see the glory of God in his loving mercy, his sacrificial kindness, and his unbelievable humility.

What do we learn from Bethlehem and Golgotha?  We learn a little something about ourselves.  If it took so much from God to recover us, we must have fallen very far from him.  The more serious the treatment the more serious the disease.  How terrible must have been the disease that necessitated Bethlehem and Golgotha!   But the good news is that the character of the Son of God is such that there is no place too low, no shame too shameful, no sin too sinful, no pain too painful, to keep the Son of God away from pursuing those he loves.  That’s just who he is.  That just might be the best news of all.

  1. Noel Perez says:

    Heard a pastor once say that Jesus had made up His mind to go to Hell for us. Now that is something to really consider closely. Much like Abraham having to make a decision to sacrifice Isaac and have that decision made in his mind until God stayed his hand. I do believe Jesus had to have made the decision to suffer our fate in hell for us. What do you all think. I know, “What sayeth the scriptures” but I would like to hear from some of you.

  2. metamorphmind says:

    Great post Rob. Sort of like Bethlehem is Jesus’ first step up the stairs to the gallows. “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace! Emptied Himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race! ‘Tis mercy all immense and free, for thou my God has found out me!”

  3. doulos tou Theou says:

    this sardine says, good post

  4. liturgical says:

    Think of two steps: First, for God to take on human flesh and bone seems to somehow validate the created human being; in a very basic sense, the physicality of what God created was still good, otherwise He would have known sin. Second, to die for other humans is an act by which God proclaims that they are valuable to Him. The human body and maybe humanness-in-creation are validated because of the Incarnation, and then the human soul is validated because the Divine decided to redeem it.

    So William Temple can say (can’t remember where), “My worth is what I am worth to God, and that is a marvelous great deal, because Christ died for me.” (redemptive)

    And John Stott can tell Christianity Today a few years ago, “God is not just interested in religion but in the whole of life — in justice as well as justification.” (incarnational and redemptive)

    And John Rist can write in the book Philosophers Who Believe, “Christianity emphasizes the intervention of God in history, the privileged position of humanity…and one’s individuality as a unique mark of the omnipresence of divine providence.” (redemptive, then incarnational)

  5. Danny MacDonald says:


    As part of my “education” in the Immersion class I try to read your post with a critical eye because as I learn more from you and Iain and my studies, I want to test what I learn. I have read this post several times and would like to offer these comments and welcome your learned response, in public or in private. Also, this could be a good or a bad “advertisement for Immersion”, I will leave that up to the reader.

    First, without the entire text it is difficult, if not dangerous to critique the statement of the other pastor. Unless I misread something, the quote you do provide does not say to me that the pastor believes Christ birth is only a stepping stone to the cross. To me the pastor says, if Christ did not die on the cross, the birth would not have meaning and while the birth is a sentimental story don’t forget what horrific death our Savior suffered for us at the Cross. I also think you do not disagree with him as much you desire to expound in greater depth and meaning what he hopefully intended with this quote.

    Your post does a great job of articulating that Christ magnificent humbling of himself is exhibited by his entire life; birth, service on earth, and death on the cross. However, it appears to me, that without the cross, Christ humbling himself by birth as a man and service, would be without an ultimate meaningful purpose. That purpose being to provide the one and complete medium for the reconciliation of sinful man to his righteous God. A reconciliation that would substitute for the Law and its sacrifices.

    I am curious though about your statement in the paragraph dealing with the mind of God. You indicate that God’s mind is that ” if necessary” he would be born a man. It seems to me that given God’s omni’s (omnipotent, omniscient…) that he and Jesus knew at or before creation what was going to happen and Jesus humbled himself out of the utmost love for his creation. Not “if necessary”, he knew it would be necessary, which makes his humbling all the more to be glorified, because I dang sure, in my sinful self, did not deserve for him to do what he did. He did it because despite my sin, he loved me to the infinite degree.

    Finally, I do find the discussion a bit which came first the chicken or egg? Or more biblically, which is the greatest commandment? ( I mean at that time violation of any of them had the same result before God, didn’t they?) I tend to look at the birth and cross as unbreakable links in a chain, if one or the other did not occur, there would not be a chain or a “Christ” to worship. He was not born just to be born, it was just one of the way he humbled himself, when he entered the creation. Or as you wonderfully put it, the birth is part of the tapestry rolled out in history, followed by Christ life and service and teaching, with this portion of the tapestry ending at the Cross. All showing the love of God and Christ.

    Finally, I love your posts and I am thankful for your education of me and our parish and I hope this does not make me a heretic or get me kicked out of Immersion.

    P.S. Does this make me a Calvinist? Daniel wants to know.

    God’s Peace

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